The 21st century is a unique time in church history where “attenders” are tracked in churches more carefully than “members.” In this era, people shop for churches. People are also less willing to commit (to anything or anyone) than ever. Couple that with the fact that a lingering Nietzsche-esque fear and skepticism of organized churches still remains in our society and you have fewer people than ever who feel a need or desire to join membership in a local church.
Consequently, I often get the sincere but misinformed question, “Do people really have to be members of a church to be saved?” Worse yet, I’ve heard well-intentioned Christians, seeking to emphasize (I think) the complete and free atonement of Christ, who tell others that “you don’t really have to belong to a church to be a Christian.”
It’s true that membership in a Christian church does not grant access to heaven. In fact, Jesus even tells us there will be hypocrites in the church with the words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 7:21) In other words, church membership guarantees nothing. However, if someone is truly a member of the Holy Christian Church (the invisible group of all true believers that we talk about in the Apostles’ Creed), then they will find their way into a local, visible church. If someone has a problem with that statement, they probably have a mistaken definition of “church” that includes a lot of baggage that shouldn’t be there. A “church” is never a building, institution, or tax exempt code, but it is a committed group of believers gathering around Word and Sacrament, with Jesus as their head.
There are two things that I believe are essential to understanding the question, “Why Membership?”
1) I Need Accountability
Can I read the Bible on my own? Yes. In fact, simply through reading the Bible and other Christian authors and commentators, one can develop a pretty sophisticated knowledge of Scripture. Can I even attend public worship and Bible studies with others without committing to membership? Yes. Not too many churches will turn you away. Obviously I don’t technically need membership in a local congregation in order to pray for people or even send money to missionaries. I would argue that you can probably do a better job of all of these things as a member of a local church, but technically, it’s not mandatory.
There’s one thing though that simply cannot be done without some concept of committed membership – Accountability.
Do we really need accountability to survive in faith? Absolutely. It’s very spiritually naive to say “no” and I hope to show you why. Our sinful hearts are corrupted to the point that we can always rationalize any of our own poor behavior away. American social psychologist Leon Festinger wrote extensively on the issue of cognitive dissonance, which, in short, states that we do things all the time that don’t match our ideal expectations for ourselves, so we learn to rationalize our behavior to reduce anxiety. Stated differently, we know we do bad things (i.e. sin), but we become very good at blinding ourselves to our own mistakes, because we wouldn’t be able to survive psychologically without alleviating the guilt of our imperfection.
Christians experience this same cognitive dissonance, but they process their guilt differently. We know God desires certain behavior. We fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). And at that point we either repent or we rationalize. Oftentimes, we need others to call us to repentance, because we’ve gotten so good at rationalizing our sin away. Now, who in your life should carry out that often necessary call to repentance? God designed it to be…….your church! (Matt. 18:15-20 – interestingly, Jesus is talking about the blessings of “church” in that particular section).
Let me give you a concrete example from Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 5, the church in Corinth has failed to carry out their churchly duty and the Apostle Paul actually has to hold them accountable. Basically, a man was openly involved in a sinful sexual relationship and the congregation simply looked the other way on the issue. Paul informs the Corinthian church that the loving thing to do is to cut the man off from church membership. Paul specifically says this is a duty of the church – “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.'” (1 Cor 5:12-13)
The Corinthian Christians were actually doing a very poor job as a church. Their duty was to hold the man accountable for his life. Had they been doing their job, they would have called him to repentance without the Apostle Paul’s prompting. With Paul’s encouragement, they did excommunicate him from the church.
How does the story end? Fortunately, the Spirit gives us the rest, so that we get a template for handling this type of situation. In 2 Corinthians 2, we learn that the same man who had been living in sexual immorality had repented. The Corinthian church, again not doing their job, had not forgiven the man. Again, upon Paul’s encouragement, they were led to understand that this man should once again be welcomed back into the church. “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:6-8).
The man who was living in immorality clearly needed a call to repentance. Had he not been a part of a church, who would have held him accountable? Likely, he would have simply rationalized away his ungodly behavior and eventually died in his sin. But, because he was called out, he was led to repentance and his relationship with God was restored.
You see, the principle of church membership is a lot like the principle of verbal inspiration (the inerrancy of Scripture), you simply have to have it, because as a sinner, you MUST have the ability and opportunity to be contradicted. Pridefully, we assume we’re always right. We assume we’re always a unique example and the rules don’t apply to us. That’s how pride works. If the Bible is not truly inspired and inerrant, then I can take anything out of it that I don’t like, anything that is inconvenient for me. It can’t contradict me. If I’m not a member of a church, no one can call me out on my sin. No one watches out for me or watches over me. I cannot be contradicted. That is death to faith.
Hebrews 13:7 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” Now, if church membership in a local congregation is not God’s desire for New Testament Christians, then who exactly are you supposed to be submitting to?
NONE of us should ever think we can do it alone. While faith is very personal, it’s not at all isolated and trying “do Christianity” in a way that Jesus never intended is more than a little dangerous.
The second aspect to the question “Why membership?” is this….
2) “What can a church give me?” is asking the wrong question
Because of our consumerist mentality, so many Christians find themselves asking the question, “What can this church do for me?” Or, perhaps more noble-sounding, “What can this church do for my family?” If that’s your perspective on church membership though, you’re asking the wrong question.
The gospel motivates me to give, not take. Therefore, church membership is much more about “How can I serve others in the church?” than it is “What do I get from/out of the church?”
I’m not suggesting that some churches might not be as good of a fit for a believer as another church. Believers do have the freedom to make that decision. Nonetheless, when you read the New Testament texts, the general impression that you have to walk away with is that since Jesus made me part of the Church (i.e. Communion of Saints), I have a new life responsibility to serve my church (i.e. local congregation). Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Cor 12:7, where he states, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” The Greek word that’s translated here as the phrase “common good” is the word sumphero (transl.). It literally means “to bring together for mutual benefit.” What Paul is saying then, is that God sent his Spirit to live in you, this Spirit provides you with special and unique gifts, and he gave you these gifts so that you would serve others (particularly fellow Christians) with these unique gifts. Your local church is your natural and God-intended outlet for using these gifts. You simply cannot grow into the person God created you to be unless you’re actively putting these gifts to good use.
(By the way, congregations where clergy do all the heavy-lifting of ministry work are on life support and unless things change, eventually and necessarily must die, because they’re not allowing God’s people to grow up in Jesus. The church was designed to be a mutually-serving organism, not a you-serve-me institution. For further reading on this, please check out “The Leadership of the Church,” posted last March @ http://wp.me/pIDP5-dW).
There is no doubt that membership in a local congregation is God’s design for Christians. It holds believers who still struggle with sinful natures accountable. It provides the natural outlet for service that is simply part of the DNA of healthy Christianity. Membership in a local Christian church that submits to the authority of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the truth of his Word is nothing to be afraid of, but a blessing to be cherished.